As my work with various schools and colleges progresses, I’m increasingly aware of a wide range of approaches to professional development across the system. In certain contexts, each of these delivers positive outcomes and I feel it’s important not to be to absolute or purist about CPD structures given that so many models can deliver. Are there some general features they share that lead to them being successful? Yes, I think each model shares these characteristics:
- Evidence-seeking: Teachers engage with evidence about what is working and what might work better – looking at assessment information and/or research evidence.
- Harnessing Expertise: There’s expertise in many forms, from many sources – but it’s needed to drive a good CPD process. Teachers have their own expertise and can go a long way just sharing it between them – but this usually blends with other sources including books and blogs, external providers and webinars or external courses and workshops.
- Evaluative processes and mindsets: Each process involves teachers in seeking to do better, rather than to produce show lessons or defend the status quo; teachers are open the idea that they could be more effective and QA processes reinforce that way of thinking rather than inhibit it.
- Cycles of reviewing, planning, and deliberate practice: There’s a rhythm over a year – cycles of reflection, selecting ideas and trying them out to see if they have an impact, then practising to do them well. They are processes – not events.
- Alignment to some shared ideas about teaching. There’s a shared language or framework for teaching that allows people to talk about their practices and strategies meaningfully. It’s not about each person going off to do their own thing, reinventing the wheel.
- Contributing to a community of practice. Each teacher focuses on themselves but also plays a role in a wider collaborative community of professionals sharing ideas, at least within their immediate team.
- Sustained over time – incentives and motivation. Effect processes are sustained so that teachers go through various stages from initial engagement with ideas through to implementing and embedding them in their practice. This means there has to be a motivational force of some kind that keeps them going.
Whilst being a firm advocate of instructional coaching, my experience so far is that this often emerges from other models that are already working quite well. It’s ‘next level’ in terms of depth of impact but it’s not necessarily where you have to or should start. Each of these structures can be very impactful, albeit with different limitations:
- Flying Solo:
Underpinning nearly all good CPD systems is a culture of teachers pursuing their own improvement. It’s possible to support this with access to good resources – the classic CPD library – but, to make sure things are happening, this can be formalised in various ways eg with individual teacher enquiries or professional learning journals or structured external courses, in person or online. Solo operators sometimes flock together in reading groups or just do their own thing attending conferences, watching webinars or engaging with the edutwitter world. It’s all good and should be encouraged. The challenge is to harness the autonomy that many teachers enjoy when left to fly solo with the need to ensure all teachers have access to expertise and are making improvements to their practice in a deliberate, sustained manner. Some teachers thrive with this approach, selecting areas that are very much geared around their interests and needs but, on its own, it won’t be enough.
2. INSET Driven
INSET sessions run at whole-school level or for large groups can be useful although they present the opposite challenge to the Flying Solo model. There’s power in everyone hearing the same input and engaging in discussions around the same concepts relevant to their shared context. Importantly, even here, I think they need to be regarded as part of a flow so that, there’s an explicit expectation that teachers will take ideas from a session, do something with them over a defined period and then feed that into the next one. They are not ‘one and done’. In between, teachers are autonomous – so there is some freedom but also a risk of drift, dilution and divergence. The red dot is the expert – someone presenting and championing the ideas. They can have a role in the initial delivery but also in keeping the ideas circulating between sessions. The bigger the groups, the less active the champion is and the longer the time between the sessions, the lower the likelihood of the ideas having impact on any given classroom. The expert could be an external person – but it’s the ideas that matter, not the person delivering them and, even if initially external expertise is needed, somebody else needs to keep that flag flying when they’ve gone.
3. Team Driven
This is an important structure in any school or college. Arguably this element of CPD is the real driver of improvement in most places. The small group of professionals meets regularly enough for ideas to carry from one meeting to the next. The leader can build alignment around a common agenda whilst still allowing individuals to explore ideas on their own terms within agreed parameters. There can be an intensity and focus to this that is highly motivating. The success of this process depends on the leadership of the sessions – they need to give time for reflection and planning involving every member of the team; the sequence of sessions needs to support sustained focus – not flitting from one idea to another. There needs to be a culture of critical reflection; the team has to contain the expertise to fuel itself.
4. Team Pairs
This is a development of Team Driven CPD, particularly useful for bigger teams or where the needs of the team are diverse or the whole-team sessions can be quite far apart. Here, colleagues within a team pair up and engage in a process of shared planning, paired coaching, peer observation or ‘unseen observation’, fuelling each other’s cycles of reviewing, planning, and deliberate practice. Pairs can report back to the others as part of the team meetings, sharing their experiences with implementing the ideas. Pairs can be nimble with finding time for these interactions and that can be important if time for whole team gathering is harder to engineer on a frequent basis within any given context. Trust between pairs can be built quickly so that feedback and critical reflection happen, although there is always a risk of cosy-buddy relationships that pay lip-service to the process without offering any challenge.
5. Independent Triads
Several schools and colleges use this structure where all teachers are part of a triad. The triads engage in cycles of reviewing, planning, and deliberate practice following agreed protocols. Part of this is the value of joint observations: two people observe the third person. Sometimes this is linked to ideas from Lesson Study. This allows the observers to check their perspectives with another – and it avoids the post observation discussions becoming personal and overly subjective. The third person provides a moderating influence and/or a source of challenge. There’s a motivational power in three people pushing each other through the process over multiple cycles. Another aspect is that two people can report on a lesson to the third person who has the role of challenger: What worked? Why? Which students struggled? Why was this? What could you do about it? etc.
The risk with triads is that people don’t find or make time for talking and observing in between their team meetings -so the cycles don’t have as often as might be possible with pairs; also some places introduce documentation as part of a QA process but this can become unwieldy and off-putting. Again there is also a risk of the cosy-buddy problem: it happens, everyone has a nice time – but it doesn’t make any difference.
6. Guided Triads.
This is Triads with Teeth! Here, the triads engage in cycles of reviewing, planning, and deliberate practice, based on common issues within a team or across teams. However, an additional element is added whereby the triads regularly report to an external person – a team coach or SLT member who tracks and guides their progress. This helps keep the process on track timewise but also provides an external source of probing challenge and/or supportive guidance or expertise. I’ve seen these sessions in action and they can be quite superb. The external person asks process questions: What is working? What challenges have you experienced? Where have you seen learning gains? Which strategies are you planning now? How will you know if they’re working? The teachers bring examples of student to work to show how things are having an impact. The business of the lesson observations is stripped away to focus on the outcomes. This is really useful, especially where people are new to the process or perhaps struggle to run their cycles efficiently. In terms of time commitment, you can set up half-termly check-ins giving triads time to meet and discuss in between.
7. Coached Pairs
This structure has elements of guided triads and team pairs but the coaching person is a continual presence. The way this works is the coach meets regularly with the pair to discuss their ongoing improvement process. It could include their peer lesson observations, work sampling and general discussions of the strategies. This might be a primary school leader talking to the two Year 5 teachers, for example. The meetings allow the coach/leader to model good probing questions. They ask questions related to specific strategies or curriculum elements that each teacher is trying to work on. What’s working? What could be improved? How can you tell? How can we get even more students to excel on tasks like this? This keeps the discussions very focused without it being about all the possible issues that arise in a lesson observation. The process allows the leader to model good probing dialogue that the teachers can then continue to use in their own discussions later. Again the three-person dynamics can allow for more probing without the personal/sensitive response – it makes people focus on problem solving and co-construction of next steps.
8. Instructional Coaching
With instructional coaching, the relationship between teacher and coach is fostered and sustained over multiple iterations and has the capacity to drill into the most precise details around what the learning problems are and what the teacher’s action steps might be. It assumes a level of knowledge on the part of the coach and a skillset that can draw out the optimum response from the teacher – so developing the coach’s capacity to do that well is a training issue in itself. I have found that really good coaches have developed these skills after engaging as the leader/coach in some of the other structures. The key is to blend the all-important side-by-side in-it-together dynamic alongside the knowledge of the playbook of high impact strategies, gauging how to frame next steps in a way that makes sense to the teacher from their perspective. At it’s best, this approach is highly effective but it’s important to develop the process and it’s expansion at the rate at which it can be sustained with the people you have.
Bring it all together: Three Streams
In all of these approaches, it’s helpful to think of multiple activities happening together. It’s possible to run several systems at once: INSET plus Team-Driven plus Coaching Pairs and Triads. The more explicit the shared framework for teaching is, the easier it is for these different elements to work in harmony as key ideas are explored in different but reinforcing ways.